Just a quick little glimpse of what’s been going on in the studio.
Progress is slow, but there has been some.
Just a quick little glimpse of what’s been going on in the studio.
Progress is slow, but there has been some.
Please let me introduce you to Miss Rumphius:
It is because of Miss Rumphius, aka The Lupine Lady, that I’ve always wanted to grow lupines.
She is first a librarian and then a world traveler, but after an injury she realizes it is time to find her “home by the sea” and fulfill the final prong of her 3-part life mission statement, which is to make the world a more beautiful place. She comes to do so by planting lupines.
I have always wanted to be like Miss Rumphius (well, at least since I first met her–which was probably 25 years ago), and it is because of her that I’ve long loved lupines.
Sadly, I’ve never had much luck with growing them. I’ve planted lupines numerous times, but they’ve always been a bit puny and nothing like the ones growing on the cover of Miss Rumphius’s book.
Until this year:
I have only this one plant, but isn’t it glorious?
It’s struggled to grow for at least two years. Its leaves would come up, but it never flowered. I’d pretty much given up on it, thinking that, perhaps, I was just not meant to be a grower of lupines.
It’s funny how things sometimes grow and blossom when we leave them be.
Miss Rumphius plants a few seeds in stony ground, and they bloom several seasons later, after winter and then a spring of illness. Looking out her window at them from the confines of her bed, she wishes she could plant more, but her health prevents it. When she is finally able to get out again after another winter and spring, she sees that the flowers have spread, their seeds carried by the birds and wind.
It happens without her needing to do anything other than plant those few first seeds. And wait, and let things take their natural course.
I suppose it might have been well enough to leave it there, but she doesn’t. She orders bushels of seed that she begins to carry in her pockets, tossing them everywhere she goes. Some people call her crazy, but she just walks and flings seeds, trusting in the process.
Which, of course, is enough. Eventually, her flowers bloom everywhere.
Like Miss Rumphius, I am ending one stage of life and beginning another, wondering what I might do to make the world a more beautiful place.
I suspect the seeds of an answer to my question have already been sewn, and that it will unfurl when I turn my attention to other things and stop waiting for its bloom.
What about you, friends? Anything you’re waiting for?
My friends told me that it was an amazing experience. They said it was life-changing. They said it was powerful.
And yet, none of that really captures it, any more than the prenatal class I took for those expecting multiples conveyed what it would really be like to care for two babies. I want to write words that will somehow help anyone reading to know how amazing, life-changing, powerful, and down-right magical it is to appear in a Listen to Your Mother show, but I’m pretty sure it’s not possible.
I think you had to be there.
I’m going to try anyway.
All of those things my friends told me–they are true. What it really all comes down to, I think, is the power of shared story. Sharing: That’s where the magic is.
For much of my adult life, I questioned and struggled with the purpose of writing. It was so hard. It took me away from other things. And for what? What would be gained? Who would really care? What purpose would it serve, really? Was it worth what I would sacrifice, taking the precious minutes of my life to write my stories?
Several years ago, I decided that the answers to those questions were pretty much nothing, no one, none, and no.
I think, perhaps, it’s because the crucial piece that was missing from my practice as a “serious” writer was the sharing. I mean, yes, publishing is sharing, but it’s such a one-way thing. I think I’ve kept at blogging because it’s more about reciprocal sharing. It’s about community, and that’s what makes writing matter.
There are women in this group whose life experience is different from mine in important ways, but in our first rehearsal I found connection to every single person’s story. Some walloped me close to home–Sue’s story about a difficult pregnancy, Becky’s story about step-mothering, Susan’s story about how it is to be a family with a visibly disabled child, Amy’s story about her family of strong women who rarely speak openly about the tragedies in their lives.
But truly, there was something in everyone’s story that spoke to me: from Kate’s mother who loved the Handi-wipes I remember from my grandmother’s house to Mandy whose voice is so much like her mother’s that no one could tell them apart on the phone. (My dad never knew if it was my mother or me when one of us called home.) When Kylene told of her valiant struggle to carry her large baby on her body, I remembered my own challenges to give my babies what I thought they needed. Carisa talked about not shielding her children from life’s truths, something I’ve been doing with mine for years, and Sandra told stories about her mother who, like my grandmother, was the center of her family’s universe. The absurdity in Leslie’s story about burying a pet hamster reminded me of so many moments I found myself doing things I never imagined I might do as a mother.
Through our stories–and making ourselves vulnerable by telling them honestly–we became a community. I have probably spent fewer than 15 hours with these women, but I tell you this: I feel I know them better than others I’ve known for 15 years. And I would drop everything for any of them if they needed me to, because I’ve looked into the most tender places in their hearts, as they have looked into mine. (I also feel this way about so many of you I’ve only “met” in our online spaces.)
Imagine how our world might be if we could all do this. What if we could lower our defenses and share our most important experiences? What if we could learn to really listen to each other? How much kinder and stronger and more able to love might we all be?
Putting our writing out into the world is hard because so often we are opening up the softest parts of ourselves (if we are doing it right) to others who may not accept our gift with respect or care. We put ourselves at risk when do that, just as much as if we were offering our bodies to a lover who can’t love us back.
But damn, the world needs it.
It needs brave souls who will say: “This is my story. This is my truth.” We need it so that we can see ourselves in each other. We need it to know we aren’t alone. We need it so we can be strong in the face of all that life throws at us. We need it so that we can turn to each other in the face of our fears, rather than on each other.
We need it.
My friends told me that being in Listen to Your Mother is life-changing. I believed it was true for them, but I wondered how it could be that way for me. How could getting up on a stage for a night and telling a story do that? I signed up to audition because I was full of my new year’s resolution to find and use my voice, but I didn’t expect it to change my life.
I don’t know that I can really parse out how the whole thing works, much as I’ve been trying to here. I likely can’t tell you that any more than I can tell you how it really is to raise two babies at the same time.
But, thanks to this experience, I might just take a stab at trying to tell that story–and a whole bunch of others. These women have helped me see that I have stories worth telling and others I want to tell them to. I went looking for my voice, and I found it in a community of women who honored and amplified it. More importantly, I think I’ve also found the courage and heart to use it.
And that, my friends, just might be life-changing.
All of these wonderful photos were taken by one of our sponsors, Elizabeth Sattelberger of www.lizilu.com. Please do not share without her permission.
One of my most precious eggs is rolling away.
That is OK. It is right. It is the fitting culmination (and simultaneous beginning, of course) of a huge creative endeavor.
It is amazing to me, how every finished creative work is the accumulation of so many, many small actions. Many of those actions are tedious–adding layer over layer of color, driving the car to a school, making dinner, putting a comma in and taking it out and putting it back in again. Cutting out a hundred tiny leaves.
And yet, there is a certain joy in them. There must be, or we wouldn’t persevere.
Tonight I join with a cast of amazing, talented women on a stage. There will be joy in the culmination, the celebration, the finished product. But no small part of it will be because–not in spite of–all the small actions each of us has taken to live and craft and share the stories we’ll be telling.
This truth, and my ability to live by it, is an egg I can keep within the walls of any shelter I might find or make.
I have only just started reading it, but I can see that it will be just like Kate: funny, warm, smart, sharp. Poignant without being sappy, tender without being soft.
We had our last rehearsal for the show on Saturday, and of course we all wanted to hear about what it was like for her, winning that award. As she shared what she did that day and how she felt, how she prepared a speech and had to cut it down, what it was like to sit in the audience, waiting for her category to be announced, then listening to them read the first few lines from her book and knowing before anyone else that they were hers, I just grinned, happy for her and happy for myself in the way any of us are when in the company of someone else who’s lived our own unusual experience.
Because I won one of those awards once, too. Although 2003 is now seeming like quite a while ago, it’s one of those clubs that you get a lifetime membership to, and you feel an instant sense of kinship with anyone else who also belongs to it.
During the potluck after rehearsal, someone asked me about my book. I said that, like Kate, my experience had been unusual. I hadn’t sent a manuscript out; my publisher came to me. I’d met him in a poetry workshop in college, and in my first years of teaching I hadn’t written much, but I started again when my children were born. When he saw those poems, he told me that I had a book he wanted to publish.
“I started writing again because I wanted to remember it all,” I told these new friends. “Writing is how I remember, how I experience things more fully. I didn’t want to forget anything.” Then someone asked if I’d written any other books.
Well, no, I haven’t.
They asked if I still wrote poetry.
Um, no, not really.
Short prose, then?
Uh, kind of. (Somehow, what I do here didn’t seem legit enough to claim.)
At this point, I felt awkward and uncomfortable and lesser-than in the way I often do when others start talking to me about my writing. I mentioned that when I won the award I was raising young children and teaching high school full-time, and…
I mumbled something about how I always thought I wrote poetry because the pieces were so short, that I could sustain the focus needed to make them be what I wanted them to be.
I added something else about receiving a writing residency a few years later, where I got a whole week to do nothing but write–and how that was a turning point for me, though not the kind my benefactors had intended. I saw what I could do when I had time for sustained focus, how different the writing was…
I’m pretty sure my voice trailed off around there.
What I didn’t say was, after the residency I stopped writing in the way I once had because it just hurt too much. The things I had to write about hurt. My kids were leaving childhood, and I was a newly single mom, floundering in a life I’d never wanted for us. I was still teaching full-time, and the kind of time I saw I needed to write in the way I wanted to was just not something I could manufacture or claim. The margins of my life were too thin. Writing felt like another busted-up dream I couldn’t glue back together. So I let that one go.
Our potluck talk turned to kids, and I found myself connecting with another mom-of-a-high-school-senior. We shared how wrenching this time with our children has been, how the process of letting them go is both exquisitely painful and beautiful. These last few weeks have been especially so for me, as my daughter has been trying to decide whether or not she will go 3,000 miles away to school this fall.
A choice like that brings so much into stark relief.
I came back to an empty house on Saturday afternoon, its rooms silent but my head full of the voices and stories of these women that writing–and sharing my writing–have brought into my life. Feeling the swell of my own regrets and desires and possibilities, I realized that I am not so different from my daughter, poised on the border between one life and the next. Sad and a little scared to let go of the first, but looking forward with hopeful anticipation to the next.
I began reading Kate’s book, which I loved, and then went looking to see if I could find a copy of my own to give to her. Which is where I found this, a poem I’d all but forgotten.
Between My Daughter and Me
There will probably be times of distance,
winds of one disappointment or another
pushing us away from each other–
or perhaps our separation will be literal,
miles of mountains, plains, or oceans
that cannot be easily traversed,
and I will have to remember this day
when she sat snug between my legs
in the bow of the boat, her head nestled
into my shoulder’s hollow as she held my hand
and sang into the wind, the sun behind us
just beginning to sink into warm, brown hills,
the waters below us parting, a rippling mosaic
of light and shadow stretching ahead of us
as far as we could see.
Those words–“miles of mountains, plains, or oceans/that cannot be easily traversed”–were a club my 35-year-old self swung at my 51-year old heart, battering it open. She knew in only the most abstract way that there would come a day when I could not cradle my girl within the confines of my limbs, my life, my love. She had no idea how her words would simultaneously shatter and soothe an older self who would rediscover them at the very moment she is launching her daughter into the sky of her own life, standing on the precipice between what they’ve been to each other and what they are going to be.
Remembering that day in the boat and how complete and whole and joyful I’d felt in those moments with my daughter, feeling so fucking grateful that I’d found the time to gather those words so that fifteen years later I could remember that day in the boat, so that it was not lost in the oblivion of small moments that have made up most of the days of the last eighteen years, and simultaneously grieving all the other moments I have lost since I decided that I couldn’t both live the moments and gather the words, I sat alone and ugly-cried tears of gratitude and grief for all that I’ve been given and all that I’ve lost and mostly for how I just wish there had been more time. More time to hold my children, more time to find my words, some way I could have been more of what I wanted for both myself and for them.
Talking with that other mom, I said what has become my mantra in the face of loss: “The size of our pain is commensurate with the size of our love.” I mean, I get it: I know how much I have, how blessed I have been.
This truth and knowledge makes the pain easier to bear, but make no mistake: It doesn’t in any way lessen it.
Yesterday my car broke down for the 4th or 5th time in the last two months. On a blazing hot day when the cold that Cane gave me over the weekend decided to fully bloom. In the middle lane of traffic on a busy street. At 3:45 pm. (My antecedents aren’t very clear, but it really doesn’t matter. The breakdown, the blooming–it all happened at 3:45 in the middle lane of traffic on a busy street.)
I limped home at around 7:00. Literally–I had blisters on the bottom of my feet by the time I got there, after walking from the auto repair place.
But today is a new day!
The sun is still shining, but the temps are supposed to drop down to 80. I had already planned to take today off, so no work obligations for the car to wreak havoc with. I can be here when the garage door guy comes to fix the door a child broke last weekend by rolling the car into it. (Man, that car is the source of all trouble this week. Should just get rid of it!)
Nothing to do but sneeze and blow my nose and play with my collage.
And maybe take an afternoon nap with this girl.
Right after the garage door guy comes.
I love the way creative communities work. If Marion hadn’t done that, I might never have gone down the road I have with that initial impulse I had to make something about houses. I love White’s work so much. (Collages, houses, writers? All in one? Yes, please.) It sent me on a Google search for collage houses, and oh, the things I found! (Rather than linking to them all here, I’ll just send you to the Pinterest board I created to store them in.)
Once I discovered these, I lost interest in the map houses I was working on (which is part of the reason I just finished that project, even though I thought it was crappy). I wanted to create houses with more detail.
The first thing I did was head out with my phone to take pictures of houses I like:
I was looking for houses that reminded me of my grandmothers’ houses, and I was looking for houses that I thought I might be able to re-create. (As you can see, I didn’t focus on taking great photos. I really just wanted to snap as many as I could as quickly as I could. After making one house, I now know that I need to take the shot as level and straight-on as I can. Maybe later I’ll want to try making houses from different angles/perspectives, but not yet.)
The next thing I did was attempt to sketch some of the houses, because I knew I’d have to draw the parts on the paper I would use to make the collage. I remembered my lessons from Ed Emberley, and I focused on breaking each house down into its shapes. When I do this, drawing isn’t quite so daunting.
I started with the simplest house I could find, and as I started to figure some things out, I moved on to more complex ones. I found it was really helpful to have the photos to help me. I would measure the dimensions of the shape in the photo, and I used that to get scale correct(ish).
Then it was on to making a house. Again, I chose the simplest one to start with (top left in the photo collage above, which is from the house in the bottom left of the first house images photo collage).
For materials, I decided to use paper from old books I have. I thought about not coloring them in any way and trying to use varying fonts and type sizes to create color and texture, but I decided I’m not that good yet. I used watercolor pencils instead. I cut out blocks of text, and then used layers of pencil color that I rubbed together with my fingers.
When I went looking for text to use, I found I didn’t want to use just any old random text. I have two books for cutting with information about the industrial revolution and the horrible living conditions that most working-class people lived in during that time. That seemed like fitting text (more on that later), so that’s what I used.
Then it was a matter of cutting out my pieces and gluing them together.
I say that like it was a simple undertaking, but in truth it was hard and very slow-going. I learned that I have to build the houses in component parts (doors, windows, etc.). I’m careful about when I glue something down–because if I mess up and have to discard something, it might mean discarding several components if they are already glued together. (Ask me how I learned that!)
I can’t believe it took me two weeks to make this simple house, but it did. The chimney alone probably took an hour.
I will be combining this house with some words and with some other elements, but this is what I have for now:
It’s not perfect, but I’m much happier with this than I was with my first draft houses. And I can’t wait to start house 3.0.
So that is my collage poem/art about home.
Don’t spend any time trying to figure out something nice you can say about it in the comments. I know it’s not good. It is not at all what I could see in my head as I was making it. And that’s OK. I’m even going to call it more than OK.
Somewhere around the time I laid down some crappy-ass Sharpie on the houses, I knew it wasn’t going to be what I hoped. I thought about chucking all the houses and starting over, but one thing that came to mind was Anne Lamott’s famous words about shitty first drafts.
I was feeling fairly paralyzed until I started thinking of this collage as a first draft. I mean, I really wanted my whole houses from maps and collage poem about houses thingy to work out differently. When I realized it was going to be crap, I contemplated starting over with it. But then I started remembering Ira Glass’s words about being a beginner. I’ve referenced them before, but today I’m going to put (some of) them right in front of you:
All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there is this gap. For the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good. It’s not that great. It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not that good.
But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is good enough that you can tell that what you’re making is kind of a disappointment to you. A lot of people never get past that phase. They quit.
Everybody I know who does interesting, creative work they went through years where they had really good taste and they could tell that what they were making wasn’t as good as they wanted it to be. They knew it fell short. Everybody goes through that.
And if you are just starting out or if you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Do a huge volume of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week or every month you know you’re going to finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you’re going to catch up and close that gap. And the work you’re making will be as good as your ambitions.
(One of many sources for this here.)
If I waited to share this until I had the skill to make it match the vision in my head, I could be doing nothing else for a very long time. (And not sharing for a very long time.) But, once I was able to think of it as a shitty first draft, I was able to finish it and let it go.
Let’s look at it again. Like all first drafts, there are some glints of promise. Some sparkles of potential. But, let’s not deny how it is also, right now, pretty damn shitty:
I look at this, and I know Glass’s words are true, and sometimes this truth is disheartening.
When I was parenting younger children, I just didn’t have enough time to do a huge volume of creative work. (And that’s a truth, too, despite all the creative gurus out there who tell you that if you want it bad enough, you’ll make the time. Don’t believe me? Read Kelly Diels’s piece on time confetti, and then let’s talk.) Although my kids are less time-intensive than they once were and are preparing to leave my nest, I still have heavy time commitments to others.
But here are some other true words, too, that my friend Alexandra shared on Facebook over the weekend:
“When people start stopping, that’s when they start getting old.”
I don’t use “old” as a pejorative, but there’s a certain kind of old I want to be. I want to be the kind of older person who never stops starting.
And who never quits.
That’d be the shit.
Raising teenagers is hard. Combining families is hard. Raising teenagers in a combined family? Hard². Throw in some cognitive difference, some mental illness, some career challenges? You’ve got hard to the nth power.
Back when our children were younger and parenting time agreements with our former spouses were different, Cane and I had every-other-weekend mostly to ourselves. We used to joke that we didn’t understand why everyone didn’t get divorced, because it was so nice to have some grown-up time while the kids were being well-cared for by other people who loved them. It was the kind of joke you tell to help yourself feel better about things that hurt, but like all jokes, this one contained a kernel of truth.
Last Friday it was not an exaggeration to say that we really couldn’t remember the last time we’d had a few days at home with no kids. It had been so long that we’d forgotten what it was like. We’d forgotten what we were like–just the two of us, at home, doing at-home things.
Last weekend, we got to remember.
It was the first, glorious weekend of sun in the northwest, which may just be the most magical weekend of the year here. Flowering trees were in full flower, and shoots of all kinds were shooting.
I got early morning time in my studio, which has become the happiest of my happy places.
There were hours at the nursery and in the garden. We swept the deck, and cut back dead foliage, and planted onions and herbs and flowers.
We hit up an estate sale, which prompted good thought and discussion about possessions and collections and how we’re spending our lives’ energy and the fruits of our work.
We strolled through some favorite Portland neighborhoods so I could take photos of houses, for a creative project that is becoming my new obsession. (More on this in another post.)
We remembered days when lying on a blanket in the park was the most luxurious of pleasures, so we stopped at a thrift store for a park blanket. We found a wonderful corduroy quilt and then took a short nap in the park.
I also found there this perfect, tiny cup for a small cacti that’s been waiting for a home. Cups with plants might be another new obsession.
We missed our children and talked about them a lot, but we also realized how much we’ve missed us–the us that made us jump onto the train of our life as a family.
There is still so much transition and upheaval and unknown in the terrain we’re traveling. We know that this weekend we were just coasting through the easy valley of a welcome and much-needed respite. I sometimes say that I wish I could fast-forward to the fall, when I know we’ll be in a different place with more certainty to it, but I’m trying to stay present and take as much in as I can during these last months of living with my children. Because we can’t know what’s really around the coming turns, I am trying to appreciate everything I have and cherish it right now, today.
Still, it was nice to see a flash of light at the end of my parenting tunnel, to remember an important part of why it is we’ve been working so hard to stay on the rails.
Hoping you are getting what you need in these first few weeks of spring, too. Would love to hear how things are going for you in the comments.
As mentioned in my last post, Cane and I recently stayed in the most wonderful house we found on Airbnb.
It rekindled every fantasy I’ve ever had about living in a small, cozy, perfectly imperfect house.
The main floor was all one room, with a tiny closet-sized bathroom. I like to think that if I lived mostly in one, unified space, I would have one, unified life.
There was an upstairs, too…
It was an open bedroom with skylights and slanty ceilings and a pie-slice view of the water. Lying in bed, I could hear the trains and seagulls and rain on the roof.
There was also a wonderful bathroom, with a claw-foot tub (I swear I will live in a house with a deep, claw-foot tub before I die) and a sink carved from wood.
Yes, a sink carved from wood. It was clear to us that much of the house was handmade, probably most of it from salvaged items. If you’ve known me long, you know how I love such things. To have a whole, perfect home like that? It made me want to move in and never leave.
We were able to stay only two nights. I loved getting up in the morning and putting on a kettle for tea and sitting on the couch with a book. I loved studying the way its owners had crafted it, the way nothing really matched but everything seemed to go together. Wouldn’t it be nice to have a home like that? Or a life?
I loved pretending, just for a short time, that I lived there. For two days, at least, I did. It’s really something wonderful, to try on a different sort of life in that way, kind of like when you go to a clothing store and try on something you’d normally never choose, and it surprises you how much it suits you.
The best part, of course, is that you don’t have to buy anything. Even though it all looks and feels really good on you, it might not work for the things you have to do, the choices you’ve made about how you are going to live. That’s OK, though, because it’s not about buying. It’s about the looking, the trying, the testing out that’s important. Seeing what you really like, so that when choices do need to be made, you can make good ones.